When David Cutcliffe took over as Duke’s head football coach in December 2007, one of the first things he did was take a look at the Blue Devils roster.
One thing jumped out at Cutcliffe right away.
“We had eight scholarship players from the state of North Carolina on the roster, and that bothered me,” he said.
Cutcliffe’s emphasis on improving the Blue Devils’ in-state recruiting efforts – especially in Charlotte and surrounding counties – has paid off.
Sixteen of Duke’s 27 players from North Carolina are from the Metrolina region, and 10 of them have either started or been key reserves this season as the Blue Devils (6-6) prepare to take on Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl on Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium.
Even with competition from fellow in-state Atlantic Coast Conference schools North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest, not to mention Appalachian State, East Carolina and now Charlotte, Duke’s coaching staff has become adept at landing some of the region’s best talent.
“We’ve studied this for years, but geography is the No. 1 factor in recruiting,” Cutcliffe said. “It doesn’t matter where you are, and we’re blessed to be in a state that’s erupted in population. With all that growth, the football has also gotten better, and Charlotte is one of those cities that has undergone some of the biggest changes.”
Charlotte and Mecklenburg County’s growth over the last two decades has been mirrored by its success on the football field – 12 N.C. High School Athletic Association championships since 1990 (including seven straight 4A and 4AA titles by Independence and three of the last four 4AA titles by Butler) and 14 N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association titles since 2000. Add on the counties surrounding Charlotte, and that number grows to 37 NCHSAA championships since 1990.
Of course, for Duke to tap into that talent pool required some work; Cutcliffe was the man for the job.
“It started with relationships,” said Cutcliffe, who began recruiting in North Carolina when he was an assistant coach at Tennessee in the early 1980s. “I worked this area hard, and we had some success there. We had good relationships with the coaches.
“When we came to Duke ... we saw the problem right away, and we attacked it. We went after it hard.”
There were a few hurdles, though.
First, there is Duke’s academic reputation as one of the nation’s top universities; Cutcliffe made it a major selling point.
“It’s not every day you get a chance to go to Duke University on a full ride (scholarship),” said redshirt junior defensive end Justin Foxx, a Charlotte native who went to Victory Christian. “That degree pulls a lot of weight, and it’s important to a lot of people. You have to be focused and have good time management skills, but as Coach Cutcliffe keeps telling us, ‘If it was easy, anybody could do it.’ ”
“It’s tough, but we have a good academic staff that really helps us out,” said sophomore wide receiver Jamison Crowder, who went to Monroe. “But if you graduate from a school like Duke, you can work pretty much anywhere you want. It’s something that recruits look at; I know I did.”
Then there was the lack of success by the Blue Devils, who had not had a winning season or made a bowl game appearance since 1994. However, that became another selling point – probably Cutcliffe’s biggest one.
“It was being part of something special,” said redshirt junior cornerback Ross Cockrell, a Charlotte Latin graduate who led the ACC in interceptions (five) and was a first-team All-ACC pick this season. “The point was to become a legend, to change a culture. That’s something we can do at Duke that we can’t do anywhere else.”